February 12, 2014


How does that feel?

The most common question from teacher to student is, ‘how does that feel?’; where do you feel that?’; and ‘can you move/change that feeling (and how)?’. This is the process by which we have come to learn that science has only a partial understanding of the process of becoming more flexible, or stronger. I spent many years in graduate study at the ANU, in the Philosophy and Human Ecology Departments, and one of the main focuses of that work was trying to understand the limits to science, as a broad set of tools for understanding the natural world. And it became clear that science has little to say on those aspects of human experience that are (often pejoratively) labelled as “subjective”. Pain is a perfect example, and an individual’s experience of the many sensations of the activity of stretching is another. No amount of understanding of the biology, mechanics, or neurophysiology of stretching will actually get you into side splits. We have spent 25+ years in the close study of this most intimate and inner of human experiences, and now we understand something about it.

I will tell you what I think is happening in a moment, but a bit of background first. An area of the brain called the somatosensory cortex was once thought to only be where information from the proprioceptors was ‘recorded’. An aside: one of the difficulties of articulating dimensions of experience are the assumptions that are built into models like these (‘recording’ as a metaphor for the experience of living, or the many computer metaphors that attempt the same thing, like memory considered as ‘storage’). I argue that these metaphors are completely unsuitable for this task, and instead of shedding light on any associated question, instead obfuscate, or cover up, what’s trying to be understood. English is poor in respect of concepts and words for describing one’s interior states. And there is emerging dialogue in a field termed ‘interiority‘ that attempts to describe this, but I note that criticism has already emerged on the grounds that the very term draws part of its ‘power’ from the metaphors of architecture.

As an ex academic, I am often amused by the constant re-invention of the wheel that plagues popular writing; phenomenology (called one of the ‘Continental’ schools here in Australia, with our still-prevalent logical positivist biases) has been plumbing the depths of the interior life, as lived, for a very long time now and some remarkably clever thinkers work can be found with a simple search on this term.

And there’s another new/old word, too: interoception. Another term introduced by the great Sherrington (proprioception is his, too), and based on another great’s work, Pavlov, interoception has not got the traction it deserves. Only recently has this term re-emerged, and I believe the term is becoming popular among fascial researchers like Robert Schleip (“Greeeaaaat!”, for anyone who has had the pleasure of working with him!) as the term to describe the suite of sensations that comprise the inner world.

I believe one of the main impediments to this term becoming as popular as proprioception, and becoming central in research rather than peripheral, is that interoception simply cannot be studied by science and medicine the same way as rocks and plants (and that’s a big assumption, too); interoception must be experienced; it must be lived, to have any meaning at all. MRI analyses of patterns in the brain do not have much to say about the lived experience. I believe this research direction is unlikely to uncover anything really useful; direct, subjective experience: our work, Yoga, contemplation, the emerging movement schools—these are the paths that will lead to deeper understanding of the lived life. What useful information is yielded by a knowledge of citrus organic chemistry in respect of the question, ‘what does an orange taste like?’ to one who has not tasted an orange?

But back to the task at hand. Research over the past 15 years, in particular, has led to a reassessment of the role of proprioception in both range of movement (the classic ROM so loved by body work practitioners) and the experience of living, the far more interesting aspect, I argue. And our work in flexibility and movement strongly suggests two aspect of this which are not yet mainstream discourse. The first is how the body learns to balance: in a typical beginner’s MG* class, we will teach the students how to kneel upright on a Swiss ball, balancing on only the shins, then the knees. About half the class can do this the first few times they try; and the remainder cannot. The next class, though, a week later, and with no practise of any sort in between, 100% of the students can do this. We feel the mind–body, when exposed to any challenge, works on the problem in the background, in a way that is completely hidden from you, the ‘owner’. The second is that becoming flexible has little to do with Z-fibres and sarcomeres; it has everything to do with what the neural system experiences as the task is being attempted (especially when you come out of the end stretch position). The owner of the body in question feels a series of sensations—and sensations are the language of the body. Sensations are primary and some sensations, when sufficiently intense, create the experience of emotions. In the stretching world, the elephant in the room is fear.

Fear is something we talk about in the class and workshop situation, because it’s there (imagine trying to sit in side splits if you can’t, or to lift yourself off the floor into a full back bend if you can’t do that either), and because pretending fear isn’t present does not change the reality. I believe fear is experienced when the body is sufficiently challenged, because this response is ‘hard-wired’ (to use another computer metaphor) in the system. It is a major part of our inherited adaptive mechanisms. And watching a demonstration of what you will soon be doing elicits the same internal response, if you have not had the actual experience. All creatures exhibit this response. If an amoeba is stimulated with a probe in a petri dish, for example, it withdraws from the irritant. Let me put this another way: no human being has ever responded to a threat, or strong stress, by lengthening, relaxing, softening, and opening. It just does not happen—yet, paradoxically, this reflex can be unlearned. And in the unlearning, major changes take place in the world of interiority. All reflexive responses can be repositioned this way, too.

A strong stretch is just another threat, as far as the body is concerned, unless you can actually do the intended movement—in which case, all you feel are sensations, but which have no strong emotional charge; accordingly, there is no threat, and your experience of exactly the same position is a different experience from the person who cannot. This difference turns on attribution of significance: I am certain that the sensations coming from the body can be experienced as a threat (depending on your personal history) or as a pleasant sensation (if stretching regularly is part of your personal history). And I feel that much of the confusion surrounding the most intimate of experiences, pain, turns in the individual’s capacity to separate the sensation (neural impulses) and the significance (the story we have learned to tell ourselves about it).

As a culture, we westerners know more about the external world, in scientific terms, that any culture has, as far as we know. But it seems to me we have made the mistake of knowing the price of everything, and the value of nothing, in the process. The main problem is one of intent, or one of direction: most systems, beginning with pre-school, are oriented to knowing more and more about the external world. But where is the balance? When are children taught how to look inside, and to understand the significance  (or the non-significance) of what they feel? And where are the adults who might teach them these important things? That’s enough to get the conversation started, I feel; please add your comments below.

*MG: Monkey Gym

  • Kia Ora Kit,

    Wonderful article. The situation you describe is something I notice in Aotearoa, NZ.

    The science is valued by the government and the masses, yet the value of Kaupapa Māori approaches are seen as ‘lesser than’.

    Really looking forward to the border opening (fingers crossed ha ha) and being able to experience (and feel) more of the approaches you promote.

    Mauri ora – Be well


    • Kia Ora, Pete,

      Any system that is heart based (as all the traditional healing arts are) will always be undervalued by human who prefer money to life itself. When the borders open, you will will be most welcome at a training here.

      Regards, Kit

  • “Knowing the price of everything, and the value of nothing”. Isn’t that what Oscar Wilde said when giving a definition of cynicism?

    • Indeed! One of the great problems of our modern culture. Learning how to feel can offset this completely. Thanks for commenting. Kit

  • Good insights. So difficult for dysfunctional systems to ‘feel’ anything with fear over riding the capacity for safety so these people who have this do not move or stretch often or if they do are extremists to the point of real pain which is the only thing they feel. If only we taught this from kindergarten when kids usually don’t have any ‘fear’ and can normalise ‘going inside to feel’.

    • Hi Dawn. Lovely to hear from you! Thank you for your comment, and we agree that these are the sorts of things that should be taught in kindergarten.

  • Thank you for this article. How long will it take for our Western culture to begin to value our innate inner experience? I guess I would even say we might NOT need to focus on teaching this to our children in Kindergarten, rather allow our children to live in this natural state and avoid at all cost unlearning them. I am so appreciative of the child-based educational examples that value the child’s feeling, kenisthetic , and intuitive experience just as much as their thinking (Subjective) experience. We have so much to learn and be as we connect and align with our inner wisdom. I applaud individuals and communities that are courageous enough to put this forward in the face of the dominate ” I think, therefore you are wrong” culture. Again, thank you. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much for writing, Phoenix. Kit here – I agree completely with your thoughts on educating children – for 99% of human history, all the essential skills, including singing, dancing, and moving, were learnt from one’s elders – and that was the whole village, usually. Compare that to today’s nuclear family, and children literally trapped in their seats at school, having walked through a metal detector to get there. Olivia here – parents are outsourcing the education of their children; I don’t mean this as a criticism of parents, the fact is the the adults’ lives are consumed by working – there are only so many hours in each day.

      Like you, we are trying to align and connect with our inner wisdom, which is why we stress the necessity of deep relaxation as the means of quietening everything down. Occasionally it does feel like we are lone voices in the wilderness, but this is what we do and what we are passionate about – and we love connecting with like-minded individuals, which is the whole purpose of this exercise. You have a beautiful website, too, and best wishes to you. Kit and Olivia

  • the world is made from our perception, a perception that is based on my background, cultural, linguistic and family that shapes who I am as an individual. When an individual goes to the doctor, he enters the office believing that the doctor will cure him and this possibility is more concrete, when the doctor does not only have a good treatment, but managed to prove with fundamentals that the person will be cured of the problem. I can also say that some species the fetus is formed from the ability that this or that animal will have. In the case of humans the body develops around the head, in the early stages of development of the fetus there is a disproportion between the head and the rest of the body, because our ability is to think, we are thinking animals. In conclusion I think that the experience in a given situation has its roots in this mental process.

    • Hi Marcio. Kit here. All of this is probably accurate, but it can all be changed. You write that we are thinking animals, and that’s true, but it’s also true that we are feeling animals. Western culture has over-emphasised the thinking part, and the practices that I am recommending are simply a means of achieving some balance in that.

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